The psychologist's dilemma ESHHS Paper Utrecht 2010

René Van Hezewijk, Henderikus Stam

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    The Psychologists Dilemma Game René van Hezewijk and Henderikus Stam Among the recurrent cleavages that define 20th century psychology is the deep division between psychologies that distance the psychologist from the phenomenon under investigation from those that engage the question under investigation from the perspective of the reflexive capacities of the psychologist as one among other human beings and/or members of a specific culture. Most obvious was the emergence – in the late nineteenth century – of phenomenology, an explicit philosophical position in the debate on the foundations of science. Although the label “phenomenological psychology” is now widely and loosely applied to a range of methods that bear little resemblance to the debates of the early 20th century, the mid-20th century attempt to create a unique phenomenological psychology was successful in establishing an alternative position, albeit ever so briefly, within the discipline. The later incarnations of humanistic psychologies and social constructionisms owe their initial form to this debate. As early as 1890 William James articulated the Psychologists’ Fallacy (the “great snare of the psychologist”) as the “confusion of his own standpoint with that of the mental fact about which he is making his report” (p. 196). Although this could be read as a critique of introspection, and James meant it as such in part, it is also a critique of the failure to recognize the reflexive nature of psychologists’ claims. For James, “we must avoid substituting what we know the consciousness is, for what it is a consciousness of, and counting its outward, and so to speak physical, relations with other facts of the world, in among the objects of which we set it down as aware” (James, 1890, p. 197) . North American psychology after World War II however took its purpose clearly to be the psychology that was capable at every turn of demonstrating the limits of human subjectivity. Both behaviorism and cognitive psychology premised on the thesis that behavioral continuities could provide the mechanism by which one might articulate the features of the system. Social psychology, in the meantime, adopted a version of experimentation whose functions were to demonstrate that human beings were fallible and incapable of cognizing the determinants of their own actions. On the one hand the psychologist takes the standpoint that seems capable of recapitulating recreating from scratch the determinants governing the behavior of persons without ever involving the background or tacit knowledge of the recreating psychologist him or herself. On the other hand the psychologist is supposed to be incapable of understanding and explaining the behavior of a person without using knowledge of the meanings those persons employ. The first type of psychologist is not – or does not want to be – aware of the implicit knowledge they need for understanding behavior, the second type of psychologist is vulnerable to the fads and fallacies to which every human being in every culture is vulnerable. Interestingly, we now find psychologists of the first type that meet the boundaries of their rationalism when they find that some of the alleged fads and fallacies are very clever after all. Survival seems more successful if we ignore the explicit knowledge that one’s behavior is fallacy-bound. For instance Gerd Gigerenzer claims that fallacies are not fallacious after all; they are fallacies only in the light of theories claiming truth or justice or rightness in situations that are ecologically irrational. (Bargh, Gollwitzer, Lee-Chai, Barndollar, & Trötschel, 2001; Gigerenzer, 2007; Wegner, 2002) In trying to find a counter instance of the latter, we have an interesting example in the work of Johannes Linschoten (1925-1964), a one time member of the Utrecht School. Referring and adding to earlier presentations in the ESHHS conferences we think we have found a way to understand the allegedly significant “paradigm switch” from phenomenology to positivism, or the “conversion to positivism” of Johannes Linschoten in his “Idols” (Linschoten, 1964). We even have a better understanding of why Linschoten used the word “Idols”, which he borrowed from Francis Bacon. Bargh, J. A., Gollwitzer, P. M., Lee-Chai, A., Barndollar, K., & Trötschel, R. (2001). The Automated Will: Nonconscious Activation and Pursuit of Behavioral Goals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 81(6), 1014-1027. Gigerenzer, G. (2007). Gut feelings : the intelligence of the unconscious. New York: Viking. James, W. (1890). Principles of Psychology, vol. 1&2. New York: Dover. Linschoten, J. (1964). Idolen van de psycholoog (Idols of the psychologist) (2nd ed.). Utrecht: Bijleveld. Wegner, D. (2002). The illusion of conscious will. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
    Original languageEnglish
    Publication statusPublished - 8 Dec 2010


    • Linschoten
    • implicit
    • explicit
    • second nature
    • history of psychology


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